Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Grizzly Bears of Lake Clark

 I spent the second week of July at the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, one of the most extraordinary places on earth. It is located on 40 acres of private land within the boundaries of Lake Clark National Park in Alaska. This park was established in 1980 and the only access is by small plane. The facility has a main building where the most important place is located- the dining room. You will be served family-style wholesome and abundant meals- not to mention the deserts. They ring a bell to call for the feasts; so far the bears have not learned the meaning of that sound. There are several cabins spread nearby. It is not unusual to see bears walking around the buildings. For more information go to:

The routine in the camp was to go out around 0600, returning for breakfast by 0800 and then out in the field again till lunch time.  After lunch we usually returned to our cabin for rest or to edit images while others opted to go fishing.  Then, we went out again at 1600, returning for dinner at 1900.  After dinner we went out again until sunset.  The early morning and late afternoon offered the best lighting conditions.

Imagine photographing dozens of grizzly bears, huge animals with a reputation for being aggressive, on foot at close range- not a single act of unfriendliness, rather one of total ignorance of our presence.  They were so close that a 400 mm lens was too tight for photographing most of the time; so I would have to back up in order to frame the whole animal within the viewfinder.  This also provided a way to maintain a safe distance from the bears.  Another item that may have helped our safety is that we were a group of 6 and always maintained a close group perhaps making us looks bigger.  These bears may be acclimatized to the presence of people that visit the area.

The first day after dinner we ran into Pavlov, a grizzly bear so named because of his strange personality.  It appears that this bear enjoyed posing for photographers and would lie down in the sand, roll around and demonstrate strange poses.  Then he would run to the water, run, come back to the beach, shake the water and start another routine.

There was a pair of 2-3 years old cubs that were recently chased away by the mother and were beginning to start their independent lives.  On various occasions they were chased by their mother or other adult bears and they would run away as fast as they could; on occasion they would climb a nearby tree. 

There was a pair of 2-3 years old cubs that were recently chased away by the mother and were beginning to start their independent lives.  On various occasions they were chased by their mother or other adult bears and they would run away as fast as they could; on occasion they would climb a nearby tree. 

The bears live in this area because of the abundance of food and consequently grow larger than the inland grizzly bears.  They have an ample supply of grass which they spend most of the time eating just like a cow, are experts and digging and opening razor clams in the mud flats at low tide (one bear cut the lip with the shell, maybe that is why they called razor clams), and later on in August-September fill their bellies with the salmon that come up Silver Salmon Creek to lay their eggs.  They are also scavengers and one evening, one found a dead skate that provided an opportune dinner.

There are other mammals and birds in the area such as wolves (saw tracks on the sand), beavers and numerous shore birds such as yellow legs, tufted puffins and mew gulls.  But next to the bears, the most exciting were the bald eagles. 

This one of the places on earth where I like to return, just as East Africa and Patagonia and enjoy a back scratch while waiting for another grizzly to walk by.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Yellowstone 2012

  I returned this year to Yellowstone two weeks later than in 2011.  What a change two weeks made; it was warmer and dryer and more crowded than last year.  Most of the snow was gone except for the peak of the mountains.  It appeared as fewer animals were around; perhaps due to the heavy traffic and the tourists chasing them to get a closer image.  Coyotes are used to people that they just wonder around as if they own the place.  One crossed the Yellow River Bridge; why go up and down a ravine and get wet when men built this structure?

One of the reasons for returning was to go to Trout Lake to photograph the spawning of the cutthroat trout. Last year when I visited it was too early, but this time, I got there on time. It takes a stiff walk up a hill to get to the lake, but once there it was worth it. There is a stream coming from the mountains that enters the lake at the northwest corner; this stream is crossed by a wooden bridge. You can see hundreds of trout going up the stream after laying the eggs are laid in the gravel bottom at the entrance of the stream to the lake. The male trout hit the sides of the females making their eggs to be released at which time; the male spreads them with clouds of sperm to fertilize them. This is easier to observe than photograph.

To kill the time between the unpredictable otters appearances, I would spent time photographing the goldeneyes that at the time were doing their pairing dances and looking for hole in trees to set households.  Early in the morning they will do their rituals dances and flights that were finished usually by 0830.  At that time 2 or 3 pairs will fly to the top of a hollow dead tree in the side of the mountain.  By the third day, when I realized what was going on, I climbed the side of the mountain and set the camera with a tripod about the same height as the top of the tree about 30 feet away and was able to capture a few images of their landings. 

There was a Lincoln's sparrow that every morning like clockwork, will land in the same bush, perch there and sing to his heart contents.  It was a male just announcing to others where his territory was and hoping to attract a girlfriend.  I never saw another sparrow in the vicinity the time I was there…hope that he finally found a mate by now.

Since sunset arrive late @ 2100, after returning to the car from the lake, I will drive up and down the Lamar Valley road in the hope of taking a shot of a wolf crossing the road; no luck here but I was able to photograph the ever present buffaloes, coyotes, pronghorn gazelles and elks.

 Saw brown bears about 4 times but these are difficult to photograph because once it is seen, the crowd arrives followed by the park rangers that makes almost impossible to get a good shot.  Fortunately the last night in the way to the hotel, a young male cinnamon bear was walking o the meadow close to the road and finally I got a decent image.

 A few miles the road at the entrance to the town of Silvergate,  I ran into a fox family.  The animals fur did not look good (notice lack of hair between the tail and the rump); it is suffering from sarcoptic mange is caused the mite Sarcoptes scabiei, it burrows into the skin into which it deposits eggs, feces and other waste. This disease may eventually kill the fox when winter comes because the animal will not have enoughfur to protect it from the winter cold.
The day I arrived at Yellowstone about noon, I witnessed a strange interaction between a badger and a coyote.  It appears that the badger was chasing the coyote away from the proximity of it den.   While this behavior was going, the coyote will catch a ground squirrel and stop to eat it, the badger will also do the same.  And the chase stopped for the few minutes that it took to swallow the prey.  The interaction ended near a buffalo at which time the two predators parted ways.
Who knows what next year will bring, maybe I will get the elusive wolves.  Stay tuned.